The internet can make or break a musical act. In the case of Straight No Chaser, not only did the internet make the group—it created a totally unexpected career.
Straight No Chaser is a nine-man a cappella group hailing from Indiana University that offers a unique, vocals-only approach to Christmas classics, popular music and even TV themes. The group is set to perform at the McCallum Theatre at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 23.
Straight No Chaser got its break thanks to a comedic and creative rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas” from 1998 that one of the members posted on YouTube in 2006.
“The head of Atlantic Records saw this video, and he immediately reached out to the guy who posted the video—Randy (Stine), who’s still in the group,” said member Jasper Smith during a recent phone interview. “This was before Pitch Perfect and Pentatonix; it was before this a cappella resurgence. He actually flew all the guys out to his office in New York and had them sing for him in his office to make sure that it was legit, and he wanted to sign them to X number of album deals at that time.”
Smith was not a member of the group during its inception; he joined shortly before the pandemic struck.
“The group started at Indiana University, and it was originally 10 guys in 1996,” said Smith. “The same guys got together back in 2008, when they were first signed by Atlantic Records. Out of those original 10 members, five are left in the group. The other guys, including myself, are guys who sang in the a cappella group at Indiana University since then. The guys always like to say that it’s the best of the best. … They always want it to be someone from the legacy group, someone who is a Hoosier and has that same connection.”
Indiana University remains a special place in the hearts of all Straight No Chaser members.
“We love Indiana University almost more than any other place on the planet,” Smith said. “They’ve been very, very good to us in terms of co-marketing, and we love the relationship that we still to this day have with Indiana University. We have a whole lot of Hoosier pride. We always try to make it back to a football game whenever we’re in town, and I would bet money that on this last tour that we were on, at least one guy a day had something from Indiana University on his person.”
The group is no stranger to the road, even during these times of COVID-19. Straight No Chaser is coming to Palm Desert near the beginning of a 30-date tour that will go until early April—and is taking place less than two months after the group’s most recent tour.
“We played 60 shows from October to New Year’s Eve last year, but it’s just strange, because you have to wake up every morning and see what kind of protocols are in place for the different theaters that you’re going to,” Smith said. “Sometimes … we wouldn’t have contact with people, and would stay inside our little bubbles, and sometimes, we had to wear masks up until the moment that we walked out onstage. The whole industry is different, honestly.”
How does Straight No Chaser make decisions and make rules as a nine-piece, especially during an ongoing pandemic? The answer: with democracy.
“With nine guys, there are infinite permutations that you can get into,” said Smith. “Honestly, it’s a simple democracy, and majority rules. Once we decide something as a group, we do a really good job of being a united front in that decision. The group’s been a thing for so long that most people have friends or family or somebody that they know in almost every city. As we were coming down into crunch time, it was not necessarily a (matter of) policing, but more of a conversation about, like, ‘Look, we have x number of shows in the next week. Let’s tone down the outside contact and be a little more mindful of the people that we’re connecting with.’”
This same democratic decision-making process is used with song-arranging and setlist-creating.
“Some guys will say, ‘Hey, this is the setlist that I’m thinking,’ and then we’ll go back and forth on new songs that we’ve been working on, or songs that haven’t been in the set in a while,” Smith said. “There are two or three guys who are kind of the core arrangers of the group, but if someone gets a wild hair, and they want to arrange something, they can. It’s not necessarily ‘majority rules’ for someone to arrange something; it’s more of like, ‘Hey, I did this thing. Here’s the demo of it. What do you guys think?’ Then we go from there.
“We love each other like brothers, so sometimes we fight like brothers as well. Some decisions are reached more easily than others, but we definitely have a great group dynamic.”
Straight No Chaser’s most recent album, 2020’s Social Christmasing, was recorded, like many pandemic albums, completely at home.
“None of us had ever done anything like that before,” Smith said. “The pandemic had just hit, and we wanted to stay busy, so we thought, ‘Hey, we all have recording rigs at home; what if we tried to record an album at home?’ There have been parts of different albums in the past where the guys have all been split up, and the producer would ask to send over parts of songs, but we had never recorded an entire album front to back without any of us setting foot in the same room together. As much as we love being in the studio and recording together, it was kind of a really cool, unique recording experience. You get to set the pace of your own recording, pick your own takes, and find the stuff that you like. It’s kind of a strange combination of a little more freedom to record, but also a little more self-discretion and self-policing whenever it comes to the quality of stuff you’re sending out.”
Social Christmasing is the group’s fifth Christmas album. I was curious how the group differentiates between holiday covers and other covers.
“Since we were established as a group that was known for doing a Christmas song, the group has tried to put out a new Christmas album every two or three years, because that’s where the beginning of our audience started,” Smith said. “We try to stay true to that, but I think we’re running out of Christmas songs at this point. We have wrap meetings after each year, and it’s just kind of, ‘Hey, what do we want to work on this year? Is there a vibe? Does anybody have any songs that they’re excited about getting written or having arranged?’
“It really turns into a bit more of a sandbox once we’re out of Christmas. … In 2020, we released a version of ‘You Get What You Give.’ That’s just one example of one of the guys coming to the table and saying, ‘Hey, I heard this song. I think it would be a great arrangement. I put together this demo. What do you guys think?’ It was really great. We love that song; it had a nice arrangement; and we recorded that. So it’s really is just as simple as that.”
Straight No Chaser is scheduled to perform at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 23, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $60 to $100. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit mccallumtheatre.com.